Early this summer, when the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran agreed on an historic nuclear deal, thousands of Tehran residents spilled out on the streets, celebrating a future free from the prospect of war and sanctions which had strangled their livelihoods and prospects.
Today, the path to that new future is open: Iran’s parliament has ratified the agreement, following on from the United States Congress’ assent last month.
Provided Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini does not veto the deal, Iran will begin shutting down parts of its nuclear programme, in return for relief on international sanctions imposed since 2006 when evidence emerged that the country was pursuing nuclear-weapons capability.
But the story isn’t over—not quite yet, and perhaps never.
In essence, the nuclear deal—technically, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by Iran with the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany—lengthens the time it would take Iran to assemble a nuclear weapon from just days to months. That means an Iranian breakout, or effort to build a plan, would likely be detected.
The bill also calls on Iran’s government to impose strict curbs on U.N. nuclear inspectors’ access to military sites, leaving the possibility that disagreements could still arise.
Tehran has committed to redesign the Arak heavy-water reactor, making it near-impossible for it to garner plutonium for a nuclear weapon. The uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, too, will be limited to a single facility, its capacity reduced by two-thirds. The Fordow plant, a key proliferation concern, is being repurposed for research.
Iran will also get the right to procure state-of-the-art technology, without having to tap the black market—and the world will, as a consequence, know what it is up to.
The deal doesn’t ensure Iran will never get a bomb—but does give a decade for regional and global powers to pause, reflect and then take their next steps forward.
For India, this is good news: an Iranian nuclear weapon would have compelled its key regional rival, Saudi Arabia, to acquire one too. The Saudi pursuit for a nuclear weapon would have likely led it to turn to Pakistan—pumping cash into that country’s already-overheated production line for tactical nuclear weapons targetting India.
Yet, Iran has its own strategic considerations which could undermine a deal. This Sunday, Iran tested its Emad intermediate-range guided missile which can deliver a 1,750 kilogram payload—enough for a nuclear weapon—to targets up to 2,500 kilometres away. Israel, now in range of a future Iranian nuclear weapon, has held this up as evidence of Tehran’s true intentions—and the US has complained that the test violated a United Nations ban.
Iran-skeptic experts claim that the regime could continue to develop nuclear weapons capacity under the existing regime, even if inspections will prevent it from actually assembling and testing one.
There are plenty of examples that show this can be done. Israel, notably, promised its Dimona plant would never be used to manufacture nuclear weapons—and, when confronted, defeated US inspections by bricking-off parts of the facility and providing fake reactor-operations data. India, for its part, used heavy water supplied to a Canadian research reactor to produce plutonium for its first nuclear test.
Pakistan evaded nuclear sanctions because of its strategic utility to the US during the anti-Soviet conflict while North Korea was shielded by China. No international agreement, clearly, overrides the realities of geopolitics.
The first speed-bumps are likely to be hit when United Nations inspections mandated under the deal take place. Iran’s bill calls for them to be provided sharply-restricted access to military facilities—something that could cause friction.
Iran’s final nuclear path will be shaped by the geostrategic environment of the next decade in the region. Its nuclear option may be off the table—but the blueprints haven’t been consigned to the dustbin just yet.